A fan favorite for years as a weekly-track star, Harry Gant was unanimously considered better than his 0-for-107 Cup record to start his NASCAR Cup career might suggest.
Gant made the first of his 474 Cup starts in October 1973 at Charlotte for owner Junie Donlavey.
Gant's first of 18 career NASCAR Cup Series wins came in 1982 at Martinsville.
“Hard-Luck Harry” already had 10 runner-up finishes on his NASCAR resume by the time his Skoal Bandit team arrived at Martinsville Speedway late in April 1982. A fan favorite for years as a weekly-track star, 42-year-old Harry Gant was unanimously considered better than his 0-for-107 Cup record might suggest.
Far, far better, in fact.
Some of those 10 disappointing losses were heartbreaking; others were humiliating routs. His first second-place was by a split-second in April 1980 at North Wilkesboro. Later that season he was second at Dover and Rockingham. He was second seven more times in 1981, including consecutive weekends at Michigan and Daytona Beach.
But at least he wasn’t losing to racing’s lightweights. Those three second-place finishes in 1980, for example, were to Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Cale Yarborough. The next year he lost twice each to Yarborough, Waltrip, and Bobby Allison, and once to Benny Parsons. Several were by a car-length and several others were under caution. All were to past or future champions who made it to the Hall of Fame.
If Gant were frustrated, he kept it inside. “He didn’t let it show,” veteran crew chief Travis Carter recently told Autoweek. “He was performing better than at any time in his career. I think he’d get a little upset now and then, but I kept reminding him—‘let me tell you about this business: run well long enough and you’re going to win. You have to have good speed and be competitive before you can win. Once in a while you see people win a one-off and you wonder what’s going on. We run good every week and can’t win, but they win. Well, that happens.’
“Harry managed it well. He didn’t feel pressured to win. (Team co-owner) Hal Needham was thrilled to death with the way we were running. We were getting great press coverage and good coverage on TV. We just had a lot of little issues—a flat tire at the wrong time. Stuff like that.”
Nothing went insurmountably wrong at Martinsville. Lapped twice and a non-factor much of the day, Gant made up the deficits and simply ran down the leaders under green. “I was crying when I took the checkered,” he admitted that afternoon. “Can you believe that? After 1,300 races (in many series and with untold victories), I was crying because this one is so special. This is the best feeling I’ve ever had in racing."
Most in the crowd estimated at 30,000 were thrilled for Gant, Carter, and Needham. As one series-watcher scribbled that night: “Along pit road, the hardened fraternity of mechanics and owners cheered him. Regardless of the past or the future, this was a special moment in stock car racing, an emotional moment when a hard-working, well-behaved, clean-driving, popular gentleman finally got what he so richly deserved. If Gant had any detractors in the crowd, they were wisely keeping quiet.
“Virtually everyone in the place stood to salute him. Even fans of NASCAR’s long-established stars—Petty, the Allisons, Waltrip, Baker, Parsons, Earnhardt, etc.—set aside their one-man loyalty for the moment and joined Gant’s legion of fans. They waved their caps, jackets, beer cans, and programs as he took a teary victory lap.”
It had been a long time coming.
Gant’s career had begun with countless late-night street racing in western North Carolina. He went legit in 1963, racing a Hobby Class car at Hickory Speedway. He advanced to the faster and more sophisticated Late Models, then briefly raced in NASCAR’s Grand National East series. He made the first of his 474 Cup starts in October 1973 at Charlotte for owner Junie Donlavey.
He spent the next few years getting occasional Cup rides while concentrating primarily on major Late Model Sportsman shows in the South and along the Eastern Seaboard. He won hundreds of weekly short-track races—as usual, stats are somewhat sketchy—and several track championships.
In 1979, at the relatively advanced age of 39, Gant went full-time Cup racing, first for Kenny Childers, later for Jack Beebe. He spent two-plus seasons with their mediocre teams before signing on for 1982-1988 with movie stuntman Needham and Hollywood star Burt Reynolds.
With Carter atop the pit box, the team won 10 poles and nine races in seven years together. Gant spent the last six years of his career (1989-1994) with brothers Richard and Leo Jackson, winning seven more poles and nine more races. At age 54, after the 1994 season, Gant retired, content with his career record that included eight top-10 points seasons.
His 0-for-107 losing streak ended on a bright Sunday afternoon at Martinsville, a picturesque, half-mile, low-banked bullring in southern Virginia. He qualified third behind Terry Labonte and Parsons and led three times for 167 laps, including the final 144. He won by more than a lap over Butch Lindley, a popular and well-respected friendly rival from their Late Model Sportsman barnstorming days.
Ironically, Gant may have benefitted from contact with Lindley at lap 318 of 500.They were running 2-3 behind Waltrip when they got together in Turn 2. Lindley looped from contact and Gant suffered major right-front and front-end damage. Both continued, but the front-end damage created openings for more fresh air to Gant’s front brakes. That proved to be a huge advantage during the rest of the race on a hot day at the accelerate-and-brake, accelerate-and-brake track.
“Butch and Harry were running good,” Carter said 39 years later. “When they got tangled, Harry’s front end got beat up. He thought the way to run good at Martinsville was to keep the brakes cool. (After the incident), he had air flowing everywhere over the front end and onto the brakes. He was thrilled to death with that. He thought that was how he could win.”
Perhaps surprisingly, there wasn’t a huge post-race celebration. “We didn’t have great elation of winning,” Carter said. “It was more like a load off our shoulders. Harry probably had a big grin, but he was kind of even-keeled. He didn’t whoop and holler. (Winning) was what people expected of us. We’d done our job and it was time to go home and get ready to go (to Talladega). You know … that cycle that never ends.”
But wait … there’s more
• Gant collected nicknames like others collected groupies. He was called “Hard-Luck Harry” for those 10 runner-up finishes, “The Bandit” for his longtime affiliation with Skoal, “Handsome Harry” in recognition of his youthful good looks into his ‘60s, and “Mr. September” for his consecutive victories at Darlington, Richmond, Dover, and Martinsville in September of 1991.
• At 52 years, 219 days he was the oldest Cup winner (a 400-miler at Michigan in August 1992). At 52 years, 142 days he was NASCAR’s oldest 500-mile winner (Dover in May 1992). And at 42 years, 105 days he was the oldest driver at the time of his first Cup victory. He’s 81 now, and those records remain.
• Gant was a well-regarded and commercially successful builder/contractor until selling his business in 1979 to go full-time Cup racing. He also once owned a popular steakhouse in his hometown of Taylorsville, NC. He once said, “I’m a good race-car driver, but I’m a great carpenter.”
• Two other notable drivers were in his 1979 Rookie of the Year class: future multi-time champions and NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. Gant is in the National Motorsports Press Association HOF and the International Motorsports HOF.
• Gant and Waltrip tied for the 1985 IROC championship, with Gant declared the winner based on the “best-finish” tiebreak in the Michigan finale, a photo-finish victory over Labonte.
• The second of Gant’s 18 career victories came at Charlotte in the fall of ’82, six months after winning Martinsville. Between those victories he was a top-10 finisher in seven of 17 starts.
• His affiliation with Needham and Reynolds led to some small roles in Stroker Ace and Days of Thunder. He had one line ("Better not let the boss hear you say that") in Cannonball Run II. Despite an impressive cast—Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Don DeLuise, Shirley MacLaine, Sid Caesar, Tim Conway, Don Knotts, and Jim Nabors—the film was generally rated among the worst of the ‘80s.